Books and Influences: Bauhaus

Bauhaus by Magdalena Droste (2006)

While he was the director of Bauhaus, Walter Gropius stood by a few fundamental ideas of design — laws of proportion, beauty and spacial distribution. (11) He also tackled the problem of resolving art and technology (10). EG, what makes a great piece of furniture? Is it in its utility and beauty or only in its utility? Initially, I saw this problem as mostly resolved, or I took it for granted that we are living with both in our everyday lives and assumed it was a balance maintained by individuals.

I want to say I choose what I surround myself with but schools of thought like Bauhaus had an impact on how we see the spaces we occupy and everyday objects that fill those spaces.

Magdalena Droste, in her book Bauhaus, takes a snapshot of different aspects of Bauhaus, each 1-2 pages. It provides a historical context and descriptions of the school’s components: “the preliminary course,” “apprenticeship and diploma,” and “The Workshops,” and “Form Training — Craft Training.”

The school was far from perfect.

There was an interesting problem with the workshops: having contradictory goals of being a place to learn on the one hand and creating prototypes for products that could be sold on the other. If you are thinking about selling your work, you may not allow yourself full freedom to explore and take risks, so that the fear of making mistakes may have an undue influence on the choices you make. Some might say that because one’s art requires an audience, the fear of making mistakes and forfeiting a potential audience is inherent in the work itself, but if the environment revolves around the notion of furthering a dialogue, it would encourage the students to share and be apart of a dialogue. Selling to somebody requires more. The buyer likely has to think about whether the object fits well with other pieces, whether or not it might be too distracting for wherever it goes, and if it’s a piece of furniture, its utility.

The school was constantly in flux. It enjoyed experimenting with pedagogy and as it changed directors, the design of its courses and programs also changed. You could say the rise of Bauhaus may be a lesson in fighting traditions. Borrowing strategies from the avant garde of mid 19th century France, like forming groups and publishing manifestos, Bauhaus took its place next to Expressionism, Futurism and Dada, all of whom continually redefined what it meant to be avant gard. (15)

Some of the artists who taught at Bauhaus took a holistic approach and linked the aims of their work with the aims of everyday living. Johannes Itten and Georg Muche believed in an ideal “new man” and worked toward fulfilling that ideal and developing “reformed living” as apart of the Mazdaznan movement. I am weary of subscribing to any idea of an “ideal” man (or woman); however, like Gerhard Marcks, I think art can “have a higher value for human development.” (25)

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s approach, specifically, intrigues me: “For him the production of art was a mental process, not a question of craftsmanship.” (25) It sounds similar to my own approach; unfortunately, the book doesn’t say much else. (It’s a very quick read.)

Before moving onto its own mantra, “art and technoloty — a new unity,” (31) Bauhaus invited Theo van Doesburg, one of the founders of the De Stijl movement, to give lectures, offer De Stijl courses and exhibit his own work. Years ago, Chess Players had attracted my eye and even now, looking at examples of Doesburg’s work, I am moved by them and want to emulate them. But reading about his approach to art, I am surprised by how extreme it sounds.

In a De Stijl course, artists were discouraged from depicting their feelings, “but instead should recognize their responsibility to create a world of uniform design… Creative design entailed striking a balance between contrasting means of expression: black and white, yellow and blue, horizontal and vertical, empty and solid.” (32)

Being aware of what the goal was, I feel obligated to consider why I was moved by Doesburg’s work. I say obligated because I believe looking at my own psychology as audience is a fundamental step towards achieving an understanding of my own approach as artist. This is not to reduce the De Stijl movement to what can move an audience. Doesburg believed “an equilibrium between polarities would allow truth and beauty to become manifest in the universe, raising the art of De Stijl to the realm of Platonic thought. This was accompanied by a faith in the machine.” (32 – 33)

On the one hand, my eye is attracted to the balance between two opposing elements (color, direction of line or occupation of space) and the visual rhythm created by these elements. On the other hand, to put one’s feelings aside while creating one’s work would have an artist neglect oneself; and to move forward as an artist, one has to develop as a human being. Or I see such a role in my own work.

I like an approach that does not necessitate an integration with all other aspects of life but does not create a false boundary between art and oneself. I like to have art as a way of thinking so it is not entirely for its own sake even though what I enjoy about the product is a balance struck by the elements, a quality that exists with or without an audience.

Droste seems to imply that Bauhaus was driven by a desire to stay away from “everyday bourgeois existence” and refers to “artistic proletariat” and “dilettantism” as products of their traditions. (15) It sounds like a response to the problem of letting one’s ego overshadow the value of one’s art or the thing that supposedly brings one glory.

I don’t see the glorification of art as a problem. It becomes a problem when it leads to stagnation and the inability to distance oneself from one’s work to gauge whether or not one is making progress. This, I believe, is crucial in maintaining a place in an ongoing dialogue, whatever the issue may be. I believe we create art so that we can engage with others. We share our thoughts and responses to personal experience and abstract ideas alike. We do so to form community. I don’t think community is merely a by-product of what an artist does.  

Below are Composition II and Composition III, which I drew in 2009. I was getting my first glimpse at work by Wassily Kandinsky and just like the idea of drawing compositions.

Graphics of the German Expressionists

Sabarsky, Graphics of the German Expressionists

I’m looking to German Expressionism for how both the line and colors can fill up space, as opposed to only the “flow” of the line.

I happened to have the book, Graphics of the German Expressionists (1984), by Serge Sabarsky, on my book shelf. (I found this gem in a used book store.) The historical context (1910’s – 1930’s) from which this kind of work arose helps me to understand the intent and approach of the artists.

Sabarsky explains…

The confusion and disorientation of modern man at the turn of the century created a need for immediate and tangible meanings… This opened the way to the rediscovery of graphic techniques. In… their woodcuts, the German artists, especially the members of the Brücke, developed a style that used crudely simplified… forms…

… The printing of manifestos especially was almost exclusively done with carved woodblocks. These… were characterized by an immediacy that makes them… as modern today as they were six or seven decades ago. (pp 9-10)

Looking at the the works in 2019, I think “immediacy” refers to how pieces were intentionally made flat and simple in order to be emotionally accessible.

Much of the work is in black and white, and much of the potency I think is in the contrast between the two colors. Many of the works use large blocks of colors and thick bold lines — which could be referred to as forms or shapes, as opposed to lines that flow with their own “intent” to move in a certain direction.

The figures seem to stand their ground. Wood blocks, in particular, can be described as emblematic — something abstract but something you can recognize right away, and despite it being so simple, it is very emotional and evocative.

Some artsits used hashing, but I only focus on how broad strokes, IE those of a brush, fill up space and the interactions between positive and negative space.

Following two short essays that give some historical context, there are nine sections that each give a brief introduction to an individual artist before showcasing examples of their work.

Max Beckmann Otto Dix Lyonel Feininger Erick Heckel Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Otto Mueller Emil Nolde Max Hermann Pechstein Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

Finding My Line

Bear with me as I use this blog to talk through some problems, namely with being more abstract on a fundamental level. (It’s a technical post that asks a handful of questions and provides no answers… although it may help to know that these are problems you may encounter when transitioning from a Western approach to an Eastern approach.)

Gaa Wai 062119 Tree 1

I went to a local park last weekend and discovered a very interesting looking tree. I thought I could open up the idea of this tree by taking parts of it and deconstructing it, so that I would have a new way (or my own way) of showcasing some of its nuances. I couldn’t. In hindsight, I realize I had some obstacles to overcome.

1) I was using a new vehicle (a brush) for a familiar medium (ink).

2) My moves were bigger by virtue of my using a brush.

3) I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. a) “Deconstructing” was my way of zen drawing but I didn’t put two and two together — that I had to have that approach (the one for zen drawings) to produce the same kinds of results for previous zen drawings.* b) I was outdoors and I had never tried to draw outdoors before, while in that head space.

How did I respond?

1) I went home and instead of making the video I intended to make (about the tree), I made a video on materials. (Not very exciting and, honestly, very basic. But if you’re interested, you can find it here.)

2) I pulled out two books in Chinese (Wei Xin Yi  and Li Xue Ming) from my personal library, each of which focus on the art and style of a given Chinese artist, looking for ideas. 

3) I went to the park again, but instead of going to the tree, I sat down on a bench and reconsidered my approach.

Obviously, using a different tool will have an influence on one’s approach. The moves you make with a brush will of course be bigger than those with a pencil. But there it is. Because they are bigger moves, they will be more abstract and thus I will have to be more conscious of the process for making choices. This seems to take me out of the “zen” frame of mind I would go to while drawing with a pencil.

… And yet, the sketches of Hiroshige, for which Hiroshige used a brush, look very zen… as do the works in the two books I mentioned earlier.

Hmm… I think about what I’ve seen so far in this genre. Yes — there are a lot of big moves. One of the most basic elements is the depiction of a leaf or segment of a branch with one stroke of a brush. The body of the figure below, from Li Xue Ming, is composed of a few continuous, thick lines that remind me of Chinese calligraphy, as though, for this artist, the skills for calligraphy are the same for depicting how a figure is enrobed in fabric.

Very different than the painstaking line-work of Italian Renaissance drawings. And much more abstract.

Li Xue Ming from book Li Xue Ming

Eh… getting back to me. I am very inclined to make small moves and build (ever so slowly and organically) from basic elements.

This had presented its own problems: IE, small moves can lead me to follow a subject too closely so that I simply “copy” what I see. To address this “problem,” I would simply see this approach through to the end and be more extreme. What could this approach yield for me? I knew I wasn’t capable of “copying” it that well, like a camera, and when my eyes got lazy, I knew my brain would have to interpret for my hands what it saw but on an abstract level. This is when — if I am consciously thinking of style — I can choose what kind of interpretation I will make.

This approach has worked very well for me while using a pencil or ball point pen. The [new] problem now is that I’d taken for granted how the line of a pencil or pen is consistently fine and predictable. I’d even incorporated these features into how I think, visually, and conceive of a given subject on an abstract level.

In short, a line produced with a brush varies in width and texture and is not as predictable, and I have to learn to do more with fewer moves because each move is bigger and uses up more surface area. Sketches with fewer moves also look more elegant and efficient.

To be continued… 

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* I use the term, zen drawing, loosely. I could just as well say contour drawing.

 

 

The Sketchbooks of Hiroshige

The Sketchbooks of Hiroshige (2001) by Daniel J Boorstin (foreward) and Sherman E Lee (introduction)

I recently discovered this at a used bookstore. It’s a reproduction of two sketchbooks by a Japanese artist by the name of Hiroshige, which are currently held in The Library of Congress.

There are two editions. One is perfect bound and the other, this one, opens out like an accordion, which is similar to how classic Japanese literature were bound. In the perfect bound edition, you don’t get to see the sketches all the way to the edge. While, after a brief forward and introduction, [this edition] immediately gets into the plates and you can open up each volume in its entirety. Each page flowing into the other page.

Flipping through the pages of any sketchbook, you get to see the way an artist thinks visually and not just the ideas as abstract ideas but something that has already taken form… and how he thinks in a specific medium. Moreover, you see how he made use of a specific size, color and type of surface, which can limit where the lines go, how big the gestures are and the effectiveness of a given color and medium. 

To quote Daniel Boorstin, in his foreward, “The economy of these pages, like the simplicity of the Japanese garden, reminds us of the Zen paradox of the redolence and fullness of empty space.”

Hiroshige is utilizing the negative space as a major feature, so it’s really easy to see and appreciate the simplicity of his gestures and strokes, which somehow depict a scene in a very vivid and meaningful way, whether it’s looking at a single, central subject or an entire scene and where where multiple figures stand in relation to each other.

In only a few strokes, you know these are two people here and two more here carrying a load of some kind together… and here are some shrubbery. Looking at the color of the sketchbook pages, I notice there is a choice not to give it a wash but to rather make use of it to suggest it’s a certain time of day, in which you’re catching a glimpse of the work they do in the early morning hours. The color of the pages help to set the tone of the entire sketchbook.